Sunday night’s very moving Sopranos episode featured W. B. Yeats’ famous poem The Second Coming in a stirring scene. The poem is read by A. J. Soprano, Tony and Carmela’s furtive, lovesick son, after which he ties a cement block to his ankle and jumps into the family pool.
I was already thinking of writing here about the constant stream of literary references that have been found on this show: Herman Melville, Gustave Flaubert, George Orwell, Walt Whitman, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Kazuo Ishiguro, Arthur Golden and many more. The Sopranos may be one of the most bookish television series ever, which is one of many reasons it will be missed after two more episodes complete the run.
The Yeats poem A. J. read, rapt in his bedroom, is actually making its second appearance on this show, since Dr. Melfi also once quoted from it to Tony. The poem presents an arch and ambivalent image of rebirth, which eventually functions in the latest episode as a significant echo of the drama between Tony Soprano and his son (not to mention the unreferenced ghost of Tony’s “heir”, Christopher Moltisante). I don’t want to spoil anything, but I am glad that Yeats poem is incorporated into the show in a moment of redemption rather than one of despair (since it can easily be employed either way, which is basically the poem’s whole concept).
The Second Coming was first published in 1920 in The Dial, a Transcendentalist magazine founded eighty years earlier in New England. Here’s the entire poem:
The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?